AllMusic Review: The musical transition that seemed to have just begun with Fear of Music came to fruition on Talking Heads’ fourth album, Remain in Light. “I Zimbra” and “Life During Wartime” from the earlier album served as the blueprints for a disc on which the group explored African polyrhythms on a series of driving groove tracks, over which David Byrne chanted and sang his typically disconnected lyrics. Remain in Light had more words than any previous Heads record, but they counted for less than ever in the sweep of the music. The album’s single, “Once in a Lifetime,” flopped upon release, but over the years it became an audience favorite due to a striking video, its inclusion in the band’s 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense, and its second single release (in the live version) because of its use in the 1986 movie Down and Out in Beverly Hills, when it became a minor chart entry. Byrne sounded typically uncomfortable in the verses (“And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife/And you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?”), which were undercut by the reassuring chorus (“Letting the days go by”). Even without a single, Remain in Light was a hit, indicating that Talking Heads were connecting with an audience ready to follow their musical evolution, and the album was so inventive and influential, it was no wonder. As it turned out, however, it marked the end of one aspect of the group’s development and was their last new music for three years. — William Ruhlmann
AllMusic Review: By titling their third album Fear of Music and opening it with the African rhythmic experiment “I Zimbra,” complete with nonsense lyrics by poet Hugo Ball, Talking Heads make the record seem more of a departure than it is. Though Fear of Music is musically distinct from its predecessors, it’s mostly because of the use of minor keys that give the music a more ominous sound. Previously, David Byrne’s offbeat observations had been set off by an overtly humorous tone; on Fear of Music, he is still odd, but no longer so funny. At the same time, however, the music has become even more compelling. Worked up from jams (though Byrne received sole songwriter’s credit), the music is becoming denser and more driving, notably on the album’s standout track, “Life During Wartime,” with lyrics that match the music’s power. “This ain’t no party,” declares Byrne, “this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around.” The other key song, “Heaven,” extends the dismissal Byrne had expressed for the U.S. in “The Big Country” to paradise itself: “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.” It’s also the album’s most melodic song. Those are the highlights. What keeps Fear of Music from being as impressive an album as Talking Heads’ first two is that much of it seems to repeat those earlier efforts, while the few newer elements seem so risky and exciting. It’s an uneven, transitional album, though its better songs are as good as any Talking Heads ever did. — William Ruhlmann
All tracks are written by David Byrne, except where noted.
Byrne, Brian Eno, Hugo Ball
“Life During Wartime”
Byrne, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, Tina Weymouth
AllMusic Review: The title of Talking Heads’ second album, More Songs About Buildings and Food, slyly addressed the sophomore record syndrome, in which songs not used on a first LP are mixed with hastily written new material. If the band’s sound seems more conventional, the reason simply may be that one had encountered the odd song structures, staccato rhythms, strained vocals, and impressionistic lyrics once before. Another was that new co-producer Brian Eno brought a musical unity that tied the album together, especially in terms of the rhythm section, the sequencing, the pacing, and the mixing. Where Talking Heads had largely been about David Byrne’s voice and words, Eno moved the emphasis to the bass-and-drums team of Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz; all the songs were danceable, and there were only short breaks between them. Byrne held his own, however, and he continued to explore the eccentric, if not demented persona first heard on 77, whether he was adding to his observations on boys and girls or turning his “Psycho Killer” into an artist in “Artists Only.” Through the first nine tracks, More Songs was the successor to 77, which would not have earned it landmark status or made it the commercial breakthrough it became. It was the last two songs that pushed the album over those hurdles. First there was an inspired cover of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River”; released as a single, it made the Top 40 and pushed the album to gold-record status. Second was the album closer, “The Big Country,” Byrne’s country-tinged reflection on flying over middle America; it crystallized his artist-vs.-ordinary people perspective in unusually direct and dismissive terms, turning the old Chuck Berry patriotic travelogue theme of rock & roll on its head and employing a great hook in the process. — William Ruhlmann
All tracks are written by David Byrne, except where noted.
AllMusic Review: Though they were the most highly touted new wave band to emerge from the CBGB’s scene in New York, it was not clear at first whether Talking Heads’ Lower East Side art rock approach could make the subway ride to the midtown pop mainstream successfully. The leadoff track of the debut album, Talking Heads: 77, “Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town,” was a pop song that emphasized the group’s unlikely roots in late-’60s bubblegum, Motown, and Caribbean music. But the “Uh-Oh” gave away the group’s game early, with its nervous, disconnected lyrics and David Byrne’s strained voice. All pretenses of normality were abandoned by the second track, as Talking Heads finally started to sound on record the way they did downtown: the staggered rhythms and sudden tempo changes, the odd guitar tunings and rhythmic, single-note patterns, the non-rhyming, non-linear lyrics that came across like odd remarks overheard from a psychiatrist’s couch, and that voice, singing above its normal range, its falsetto leaps and strangled cries resembling a madman trying desperately to sound normal. Talking Heads threw you off balance, but grabbed your attention with a sound that seemed alternately threatening and goofy. The music was undeniably catchy, even at its most ominous, especially on “Psycho Killer,” Byrne’s supreme statement of demented purpose. Amazingly, that song made the singles chart for a few weeks, evidence of the group’s quirky appeal, but the album was not a big hit, and it remained unclear whether Talking Heads spoke only the secret language of the urban arts types or whether that could be translated into the more common tongue of hip pop culture. In any case, they had succeeded as artists, using existing elements in an unusual combination to create something new that still managed to be oddly familiar. And that made Talking Heads: 77 a landmark album. — William Ruhlmann